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Canada silent on Polish democratic backslide as prime minister visits Ottawa

A Polish MP from the far-right Confederation party blocked Ottawa professor from delivering a lecture in Warsaw
Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks during a media conference during the European Political Community Summit at the Mimi Castle in Bulboaca, Moldova, Thursday, June 1, 2023. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is welcoming Morawiecki to Ottawa Friday, June 2, 2023, as Canada increases economic and military ties but keeps quiet on democratic backsliding. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Andreea Alexandru

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is welcoming Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to Canada Friday (June 2) as the federal Liberals keep quiet about a democratic backslide in his country.

“There is too much silence, and I think we are on the edge in Poland,” said Marcin Gabrys, a political scientist with Jagiellonian University in Krakow.

“How can you have a shared commitment to democracy when there is a clear threat to the electoral process?”

Gabrys, who specializes in Canadian studies, said Canada and Poland have been undertaking an unprecedented amount of collaboration since the ruling Law and Justice party, locally known as PiS, took power in 2015.

Yet the party has “a strong discrepancy” with the values held by the Trudeau government, he said.

For example, a new law in Poland will create a commission to probe alleged Russian interference in the country. Academics and civil-rights groups say the mandate is so vague that the panel of mostly government MPs will be used to attack opposition parties.

“It threatens, for sure, not only the electoral process but also academic freedom, because the commission has such large powers to question people from academia,” Gabrys said.

On Monday, the U.S. State Department expressed concern over a new law “that could be misused to interfere with Poland’s free and fair elections.”

Gabrys was surprised that on that same day, Trudeau announced Morawiecki’s visit by praising “a shared commitment to NATO and democracy.”

On Tuesday, a Polish MP from the far-right Confederation party blocked University of Ottawa professor Jan Grabowski from delivering a lecture in Warsaw that would have touched on Polish complicity in crimes during the Holocaust.

The topic is a sore point for PiS, which in 2018 outlawed truthful statements that some Poles were complicit in Nazi war crimes.

“This timing doesn’t serve the social agenda of the Trudeau government,” Gabrys said.

Two years ago, Morawiecki’s government limited abortions to cases where a pregnancy resulted from a criminal act or posed a serious health risk. The party has called out LGBTQ rights as “an attack on the family and children” and turned a blind eye to municipalities and regions declaring themselves “LGBT-free zones.”

Gabrys expects Trudeau will avoid talking about any of those issues while Morawiecki is in the country.

“For Canada, many times the economic interest and security interests are more important. And sometimes it means that Ottawa has abstained from saying what it should say. Nevertheless, the case in Poland is so clear; it has been for so many years. And I didn’t see any reaction from Canada,” he said.

Canada and Poland have been ramping up military collaboration since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

That ranks high in Trudeau’s official notice about Morawiecki’s visit, which pledges “to address the regional defence and security challenges resulting from Russia’s brutal and unjustifiable war of aggression.”

Poland has been among the most assertive European countries in urging military allies to provide Ukraine with equipment. Gabrys says that’s in part due to a conviction that a victorious Russia would feel emboldened to target Poland and the three Baltic countries.

He’s watching to see if Poland makes a request for Canadians to train European soldiers in specialty equipment or in winter conditions, or to station more Canadian soldiers in the region. Gabrys expects Morawiecki to praise Canada for resettling Ukrainians who fled to Poland last year and for funding projects to help integrate those staying in that country.

Trade between Canada and Poland has been booming, rising 52 per cent in the five years since the Canada-EU trade deal came into effect, even though Warsaw hasn’t fully ratified the deal.

Poland recovered faster from the 2008 global recession, the European debt crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic than most of its peers.

The country is looking to Canada for know-how in carbon-capture technology and the fledgling nuclear field of small modular reactors.

Gabrys said his country would be open to Canadian hydrogen, uranium and liquefied natural gas if there’s enough of a business case, and Poland is trying to become a hub for electrical-vehicle battery factories.

He noted that Poland’s ambassador in Ottawa, Witold Dzielski, is close to the PiS leadership and has a better understanding of Canada than most envoys.

That has led to a series of unprecedented visits, Gabrys said, such as when Polish Health Minister Adam Niedzielski visited Canada in March to take stock of medical support for Ukrainians and to examine possible collaboration in life sciences.

“I see a new chapter, a new energy in the relations between Poland and Canada,” Gabrys said.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

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